Prosthetics in the Olympics: Equal Footing or a Carbon Fibre Advantage?

December 4, 2015


By Emma Harvey – Thompson Rivers University 2L JD Student

Oscar Pistorius, otherwise known as the Blade Runner, made history by being the first amputee athlete to ever compete in the Olympic games. The International Association of Athletic Foundation’s (IAAF) ground breaking decision to allow Pistorius to run on his carbon fibre prosthetics didn’t come without its trials and tribulations, and as the German long jumper, Markus Rehm is learning, there is still a lot more ground to be broken.

Markus Rehm, a single-leg amputee and long jumper, recently broke his own long jump world record to win gold at the 2015 International Paralympic Committee Athletics World Championships. Rehm jumped 8.40m, breaking his previous record by 11cm. However, what is of particular noteworthiness is that his 2015 jump also beat the 2012 Olympic gold by 9cm. In 2012, Rehm was denied the chance to compete in the Olympics by the IAAF and had to make due with competing and winning gold at the Paralympic games instead. Rehm hopes to represent Germany and compete in the 2016 Olympics in Rio, though he has yet to be granted permission by the IAAF. This raises the question of whether his prosthetic carbon fibre blade gives him an unfair advantage.

Rehm’s prosthetic leg is the same carbon fibre Cheetah flex brand as worn by Pistorius, and the blade providing an unfair advantage was the same excuse that was initially used to prevent Pistorius from competing against able-bodied athletes, so wherein lies the difference? Firstly, they are competing in different sports; Pistorius being a sprinter and Rehm a long jumper. Secondly, they are both leg amputees, but are distinguishable by the fact that Pistorius is a double-leg amputee and Rehm a single-leg amputee. The advanced studies conducted on Pistorius to test his oxygen consumption, leg movements, force exertion on the ground, leg-repositioning time, and endurance were all conducted, factoring in that he has two prosthetic legs in comparison to able bodied sprinters.

The arguments against Rehm participating in the Olympics are that he would have an advantage in the long jump both during his sprint down the track and the take off into the jump. Consequently, studying Pistorius with regards to his sprinting is of no relevance as we can’t confer the findings onto Rehm based on the differences in their amputations. Moreover, the study of Pistorius didn’t examine jumping with carbon fibre blades, which is an important aspect to consider, for many believe the blade gives Rehm an unfair spring-like or catapult effect as he plants his prosthetic leg before his jump. This highlights the evident need for more information regarding how a prosthetic blade compares to a natural joint in the movement of jumping.

So what is being done about disabled athletes who want to compete against able-bodied athletes? Not much. The IAAF’s stance is to handle situations on a case-by-case basis. The German Athletics Association (DLV) showed an interest in doing a thorough study and analysis of Rehm’s prosthetics but found the costs to be so high that it wasn’t economically affordable. Instead the DLV has taken the approach of studying the data of the jumps recorded during Rehm’s competitions to see if his blade gives him an unfair advantage. Officials in the past have found the data to be inconclusive and have therefore opted to leave Rehm out of able-bodied competitions for they can’t be sure that Rehm’s prosthetic blade doesn’t give him an advantage. Without any new studies, I find it highly doubtful that the IAAF and DLV will change their positions.

Unlike Pistorius, Rehm has taken the position that he doesn’t want to spend time and money on drawn-out legal battles and scientific studies to appeal and argue the various athletic governing bodies decisions. Rather, he hopes to work in cooperation with the various governing bodies, and if deemed necessary make modifications to his blade in order to ensure the fairness standard required to allow him to compete in the Olympics.

I contend that officials need to reconsider the line between able-bodied sprinters and disabled athletes. If the blade allows Rehm to jump as far as he would, if he still had both legs and with no advantage, then why not allow him to compete in the Olympics? Various athletic bodies currently regulate what drugs may or may not be taken so the same could be done with prosthetics. With the advancements of science, it is my belief that the IAAF and other various governing bodies owe it to Rehm and others to do more to ensure a level playing field for competition in sport. It follows that conducting comprehensive in-depth studies of prosthetics rather than data analysis would be the starting step.



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